Bearded Dragon
Scientific name: Pogona vitticeps

Bearded Dragon is the common name given to a group of Australian lizards of the genus Pogona. Their common name comes from their habit of puffing out their throat when they are angry or excited, giving the appearance of a "beard". There are seven species that make up the genus. The most common pet is Pogona vitticeps commonly referred to as the Inland Bearded Dragon. The other species in the group include P. barbata (Coastal Bearded Dragon), P. henrylawsoni (Black-soil Bearded Dragon or Lawson's dragon, aka Rankins Dragon), P. microlepidota (Kimberley Bearded Dragon), P. minima (Western Bearded Dragon), P. minor (Dwarf Bearded Dragon) and P. nullabor (Nullabor’s Bearded Dragon). The first two (Coastal and Black-soil dragons) are sometimes found in U.S. collections, while the rest are rarely if ever seen in the U.S. By far the dominant species in the pet trade is vitticeps or the Inland Bearded Dragon. While care for all of these species is similar this caresheet is specific to vitticeps and any further reference to Bearded Dragon refers to the Inland species.

Bearded Dragons are native to the central part of Australia (see map) and are basically terrestrial, desert-dwelling lizards. Their color varies from a dull brown or gray to straw/yellow to fiery orange-red. They reach a length of 16 to 22 inches and are omnivorous feeding on fruit, flowers, leaves, insects and other small lizards/animals. During harsh times, beardies dig into the ground or find a hiding spot and aestivate (summer dormancy) or brumate (winter dormancy). In captivity, bearded dragons may suddenly go dormant for a few weeks seemingly without reason. This happens most often in the fall but can happen anytime during the year. Just as suddenly they reappear from their "nap" and start eating and behaving normally again. As bearded dragons approach adult size, their sexual differences become more obvious, with the males developing much broader heads and a larger black beard. Males also have a rapid head bobbing display, while females, in response to the male, will return a series of slower head bobs. Both sexes engage in stereotyped arm waving behavior to appease more dominant animals and this would also be characteristic of female behavior towards a dominant male. Bearded dragons have a mellow disposition and seem to enjoy or at least tolerate interacting with humans. Males tend to be larger than females. Active during the daylight hours, bearded dragons are most often found perched on high spots in rocky regions or on fence posts and similarly sized tree trunks. They are adept climbers but seem to prefer to be 3 to 4 feet from the ground. Beardies will live 6 to 10 years in captivity.

Housing (adult)
Bearded Dragons are large lizards and require a fair amount of cage space. A single adult can be housed in a 40 gal breeder (click here to see an example setup) size aquarium. Floor space is more important than vertical space and a "rule-of-thumb" is you need 1.5 to 2 sq. ft. per adult beardie. As a diurnal reptile, dragons need a good "full-spectrum" UV light source that provides the proper amount of UVA and UVB (such as Reptisun 5.0). The UV light should be left on 14 hours per day for summertime conditions, 10 hours for spring and fall and 8 hours for winter. If you do not wish to brumate or breed your beardie the lights can kept at the summertime settings year round. You will also need a spot heat lamp to provide a basking area. The basking area must allow the beardie at least one spot that reaches 110 F (contact temperature). A good way to provide this is with an inclined tree branch or a pile of rocks that gives more than one basking level and allows the beardie to climb up towards the heat fixture (without being able to touch it). This allows the dragon to chose the correct basking temperature. It is recommended that you use a ceramic heat element or a night heat lamp and leave this on 24/7. It is also crucial to provide a cool area (80 to 85 F) in the enclosure for the dragon to retreat to when too hot or at night. The best way to provide this is to keep the basking lamp towards one end of the tank. That should provide enough of a temperature gradient for your pet. Bearded dragons can tolerate a night time drop to 70 - 75 F.

As a substrate, playsand (sterilized and washed) is excellent for adults. It is easy to clean, cheap and looks nice. For babies and juveniles (under 13" total length) it is better to use newspaper. While dragons seem fairly immune to becoming impacted there is still a remote chance and it is best to wait until the dragon is large enough to safely pass small amounts of sand, which may be accidentally ingested while eating. Some keepers use alfalfa pellets (rabbit pellets) as a substrate as it is digestible. While not the nicest looking substrate nor easiest to clean, it is fairly safe. You will also want to provide food and water dishes. Additionally, you can add a hide area if the tank is big enough. Bearded dragons will use "caves" or crevices to hide in but these items seem most utilized during brumation.

Captive Care for Adults
The diet of an adult bearded dragon should consist of 85% greens and 15% protein. Feed greens such as red leaf lettuce, greenleaf lettuce, string beans, mustard greens, mixed vegetables (frozen/dethawed mixed greens are good), romaine lettuce, occasional carrots, etc. Do not feed spinach (high in oxalic acid) or iceberg lettuce (no nutritional value). Avoid cabbages. Protein, in the form of crickets, superworms, roaches, etc., should be fed twice weekly and should include a good calcium supplement (with vitamin D3 and no phosphorus). Calcium supplementation should be done more often for breeding females. Vitamin supplements should be given weekly or biweekly. Pinkie mice are not recommended, as they are very fattening for dragons. Offering one or two to a female after egg laying is acceptable as a means to boost depleted calcium supplies.

A typical feeding regimen is:

  • Feed greens everyday, preferably in the morning to allow as much time for digestion as possible. Allow the beardie to eat as much greens as it wants; it is rare that a dragon will get fat eating too much vegetable matter. Allow at least two hours before the basking lamp or daylight lamps are turned off.
  • Twice weekly (e.g., Sunday and Thursday) feed protein. Pick from one of the following:
  • One to two dozen 3/4 to adult crickets depending on the size of the beardie (12 for a 250g dragon to 24 for a 500g dragon)
  • 8 to 16 large superworms (zoophobas), again depending on size
  • Two or three 3/4 grown to adult roaches
  • Calcium supplementation should be done with every cricket feeding
  • Vitamin supplementation should be done once weekly using a vitamin with betacarotine instead of vitamin A [Note: bearded dragons are very susceptible to vitamin A toxicity but also prone to vitamin A deficiency. Using betacarotine supplements will provide the proper level of A without the danger of toxicity.]
  • Spray or bathe with water every third day
Bearded dragons should always have a "plump" look to then. If yours is thin, increase the amount of food given. If yours is fat and shows large fat deposits (lumps) around the front shoulders or the belly drags when he/she walks, cut back on the food. The body weight of a dragon is easiest to control/change by varying the protein intake. This is usually were owners feed too much or too little (usually too much).

Bearded dragons do not instinctively drink from a water bowl. Some can be taught to drink from a dish but it is safer to water twice a week by misting (until the dragon stops drinking) or by placing the dragon in a luke warm water bath. The bath should be up to the dragons elbows but not so deep that the dragon has to swim. When first placed in the water, if the dragon doesn't begin to drink right away, sprinkle water on the dragon's head and back. This will get the dragons instinct to drink going. You can also provide water dish with fresh water just in case your dragon does learn to drink from a dish. Clean up waste daily to help prevent disease or spread of parasites.

All Dragons, male and female alike, will establish a hierarchy. Aggressive and submissive displays are a part of their normal social interaction. Dominant (or alpha) animals will take the highest or most desirable basking spot. Provide alternate basking sites for submissive (beta) animals. Males will constantly chase females about the cage and to challenge each other, often leading to fighting and biting. (This is why two males together is cautioned against for beginners). You must be alert to individuals that become intimidated, overly submissive or injured and do not feed or bask as often as the others. In this case it is best to move intimidated animals to a different enclosure.

Captive Care for Hatchlings and Juveniles
Hatchlings are defined here as bearded dragons that are less than 8 weeks, or shorter than 6" total length, or less than 15 grams in weight. [Note: If any of these are true the beardie should be considered as a hatchling]. At this stage in life, dragons are fairly fragile and require extra care. This stage is NOT recommended for beginners and is best left to seasoned keepers. While they may be a few dollars cheaper, the risk is not worth this minor "benefit". Juveniles are defined as any dragon bigger than a hatchling up to 13" total length and less than 200 grams. After this they are sub-adult or adult.

Hatchlings and small juveniles can be housed in a smaller enclosure, 18"x12"x12" (10 gallon), with a 50-75 watt spotlight at one end above a the basking area. Again, the basking area should allow the beardie to choose the level/temperature is wants and an inclined stick (at least as wide as the beardie) allows the dragon to climb to the desires temperature. Similarly, a pile of rocks can provide several basking levels The wattage of the basking lamp needs to be adjusted so that at least one spot in the basking area is 100 degrees (contact temperature). A full-spectrum, fluorescent lamp that supplies ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) should be suspended over the cage and the dragon should be able to bask within 6 to 10 inches of the bulb (UVB is required to manufacture vitamin D3 which aids in bone formation). The substrate should be newspaper. A shallow water dish should be placed in the cage, but at this age the dragon should be sprayed with water every day. Spray a fine mist on their heads until they stop drinking. Make sure the cage dries out within an hour, if not change the newspaper and in the future mist the dragon in a separate holder (i.e., a plastic sweater box). Some beardies will learn to drink from their water dish, but don't assume they are drinking unless you mist them.

Once the dragon reaches about 12" total length you can move them to a bigger tank. Just make sure in their new enclosure that they are able to capture the crickets. Sometimes the tank can be too big and the beardie will have a hard time catching loose prey. In this case, you can feed them in the smaller tank and then move them back to their big enclosure. As their size increases, they can take larger food items, and more vegetable matter in the diet.

The following care schedule is recommended for hatchling and juvenile dragons;

  • It is suggested that you feed crickets as the protein source
  • Crickets should be about the size of the distance between the dragons eyes
  • 0 to 2 months ¼ crix twice daily
  • 2 to 6 months ¼ to ½ crix once daily
  • 6 to 12 months ½ to ¾ crix every other day
  • Calcium supplementation should be done with every cricket feeding
  • Vitamin supplementation should be done once weekly using a vitamin with betacarotine instead of vitamin A [Note: bearded dragons are very susceptible to vitamin A toxicity but also prone to vitamin A deficiency. Using betacarotine supplements will provide the proper level of A without the danger of toxicity.]
  • Offer greens/vegetables daily, cut to size - no larger than beardie's head, 1/2 that for hatchlings (remember no spinach or iceberg lettuce! avoid cabbages also.) Greens are very important in the beardie diet and while your dragon may not eat the greens every day (or at all) as a hatchling, as it grows it will consume more and more greens. Good greens/vegetables include red leaf lettuce, greenleaf lettuce, string beans, mustard greens, mixed vegetables (frozen/dethawed mixed greens are good), romaine lettuce, occasional carrots, etc.
  • Spray or bathe with water every day until 3 months, every other day from 3 to 9 months
  • Use only newspaper until 12" to 13" total length
  • At 12 months old or 200 grams switch to adult care

Sexing
If you plan on keeping only one animal it doesn't matter what the sex is. Males tend to be more animated than females, but both are good pets. If you want to keep two or more you should know the sex of the animals. Males can be problematic together and sometimes will fight. It is not recommended that beginners attempt to house two males together. Females generally are fine together and will develop a dominance hierarchy. Occasionally two females may be incompatible or one female may be overly aggressive, but this is rare. If you want a male and female you will get eggs. You are not obligated to hatch the eggs; you could throw them out, but why not get two females if you don't want to breed them?

So, how do you tell boys from girls? As hatchlings it is very difficult even for the most experienced keepers. As adults it's very easy. In between it takes a little experience. Males and females look similar from the top, but if you look at the underneath they are easy to tell apart. Males have a distinct set of pre-anal pores between the back legs and have hemipenal bulges at the vent area. Females lack both the pores and bulges. The pores are easy to see by simply looking at the underside of the dragon (see bottom photos). The hemipenal bulges are harder to see, you will need to gently pull the dragons tail upward towards the head. Do not pull the tail further than 90° of you may hurt the dragon or break the spine. With the tail vertical (see pictures below) it is easier to see the two bulges formed by the hemipenes on the males. Females do not have the two bulges or the indentation between the lumps, rather females have one small broad lump that is closer to the vent.

Female
Male

Copyright LIHS © 2003

If you have additional questions about bearded dragons try to attend one of the LIHS monthly meetings. You can e-mail us at info@lihs.org or write or call the LIHS at the address/phone number at the top of this sheet. Reading about your pet before buying it is always beneficial.